There is something inherently and profoundly emotional about growing up. The bittersweet twinge that comes with maturation and embracing adulthood has long been one of this culture’s go-to poignant tropes, the central plot device for a bunch of twee indie movies and just about every Taylor Swift song. Though at times, regardless of how comfortable or nostalgic one might be with that previous lifestyle, the process is necessary. At times, futility is the only available counter to progress. The period allotted for any additional routes of development becomes completely exhausted.
The Cincinnati Bengals are approaching this territory Sunday, taking on the Pittsburgh Steelers with an opportunity to lock up a playoff spot by way of victory. The Bengals control their own destiny, as you’ve probably heard and read dozens of people claim this week, despite the intrinsic hollowness of that adage in a fundamental sense. But the sentiment holds true: win and you’re in. It’s a proposition as simple as it is daunting when it comes to the Bengals squaring off against Pittsburgh, the perpetual foe Cincinnati has long struggled to conquer.
Nevertheless, the history between the two franchises has been rather illustrious in recent years, with the Bengals even experiencing a few pockets of success against the vaunted Steel Curtain. There was the 38-31 victory in Week 13 of the 2005 season, helping to eventually secure first place in the division after both teams finished with 11-5 records. There was the season sweep in 2009, including a Week 3 win in dramatic fashion, spurred along by Brian Leonard’s clutch tip-toeing down the sideline for 11 yards on fourth and 10 and punctuated by a winning touchdown catch by Andre Caldwell. It was the first home win against the Steelers since 2001, bookended by a road win in Week 10 at Heinz Field, Bernard Scott’s 96-yard kickoff runback the key turning point.
Unfortunately, it’s when the matchups have meant the most that the Bengals have faltered, often in dreadful and soul-crushing catastrophe. The most memorable was the Wild Card contest of 2005, the image of an anguished, horizontal Carson Palmer and his mutilated knee burned into fans’ brains. That was followed in 2006 by a gut-punch implosion in the season finale: Needing a victory to reach the postseason (sound familiar, Bengals fans?), Shayne Graham choked away the game-winning field goal, pushing it wide right (sound familiar, Bengals fans?). A 67-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Santonio Holmes early in the overtime session squashed any lingering optimism.
To be fair, you can’t fault the majority of the current roster for those past iniquities. Geno Atkins, AJ Green, Andy Dalton, and a whole host of others weren’t in stripes in ’05 or ’06. Those guys are young and impressionable and relatively unscarred by the haunting losses of Bengals past. The thing is, they haven’t managed to overcome that history during their time in the league, either. Since the 6-0 divisional sweep in 2009, Cincy is 0-5 against Pittsburgh. So no, Geno, AJ, Andy and Co. weren’t around for those bitter defeats years ago. But they haven’t tasted success yet either; as far as those guys know, the Steelers own them. And they’re not wrong.
Sunday is the chance to change all of that. The Bengals are the superior team this season. They are younger, healthier, and more talented. For once, the team excels in areas that have long fallen prey to Pittsburgh’s prowess (check out the offensive line positions on Pro Football Focus’ Pro Bowl selections), even employing a defense of its own to match their opponent. Cincinnati has rarely been among the NFL’s statistical darlings in the Marvin Lewis era—save for the offensive explosion of ‘05—but they’ve managed to flip that switch in the second half of this year. Aaron Schatz, head honcho of the brainiacs at Football Outsiders, actually picked the Bengals as his Upset Watch for ESPN Insider this week (which he also discusses here, for those non-Insiders out there). He largely credits the Bengals defensive turnaround since the bye week for their overall uptick in performance, but also highlights the Steelers injuries in the secondary providing an opportunity for Dalton, AJ, and the rest of the receiving troupe to open things up. In an odd twist of fortune, the empirical data actually supports a Bengals triumph this time around.
Not so fast. Bengals players, coaches, and fans know better. Football fans in general know better. There are no statistics or numbers one could possibly throw out that would convince the Bengals community that a victory was imminent, or probable, or even likely. Bengals fans everywhere are terrified of this game on Sunday. The team has been down this path a few times before, and it has yet to end well. Win and you’re in. Lose, and it will feel like it’s never going to happen. Maybe those youthful Bengals players are just innocent and enthusiastic enough to believe they can take that next step. Maybe they’re prepared to drink the Steelers’ milkshake. Maybe they’re ready to grow up. Sunday, all will be revealed.
There’s a scene from the film Kicking and Screaming—one of those twee and emotive indie flicks we touched on before, not the Will Ferrell movie about pee-wee soccer—where the lead character, Grover, is talking with his girlfriend, Jane. The two are fresh out of college, their futures a clean slate in front of them. Grover—as the lead character of these types of movies is wont to do—is struggling with the direction his life is headed. “Sometimes you can be such a child,” Jane patronizes him, to which Grover replies, “Yeah, but if I was a child, you’d find that endearing.”
The Bengals control their own destiny this weekend. They have four quarters to decide what they want to be. We already know which option won’t be endearing.